"I feel a sense of responsibility about that.... I never really know when work will pop up. I have to always be on call.... I just accept that's the way things are."
-Masaru Daisato (a.k.a. Big Man Japan)
This is by no means Pacific Rim (2013) so lower your expectations. It may not even be your classic Godzilla from Toho, and it doesn't pretend to be. No, Big Man Japan (2007) takes an entirely different approach and delivers BIG in its own right making the kaiju picture proud.
If you approach with an open-mind, welcome something unusual or are perhaps in the mood for something positively preposterous and absolutely insane from the realms of the kaiju wonderland then look no further than the intentionally wild genre offering Big Man In Japan.
Love It! Good old-fashioned Japanese collectibles! It wouldn't be Japanese without collectibles.
I had significant reservations about this film. But, my fears were allayed quickly with the quality of this kaiju story and the general accessibility and likability of the character that is Big Man Japan.
For me, anything filmed in Japan is generally a welcomed treat and pleasure to behold based on location shooting alone. It always offers a fresh and original backdrop to a story in live action or anime from the standard Hollywood fare that is much more accessible here. Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation (2003) was very much an immersive and gradual experience for me in this way. So a sense of place and setting always plays an important role. But, on story alone, Big Man Japan is a refreshing, original, contemporary translation of the kaiju picture all its own.
In the spirit of all that has come before it from Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot (1967-1968) to Ultra Man (1966-1967) to Godzilla, this picture has all of the giant monster drama as well as plenty of character, heart and humor to boot.
Big Man Japan is indubitably a bold, adventurous take on the genre ironically recorded with a modest budget. But, the limited size of that budget never hamstrings the effort here. Everyone knows what the Japanese are capable of with limited funding.
Big Man Japan was written, directed and stars a Japanese comedian named Hitoshi Matsumoto as the mildly eccentric, somewhat insular and private Masaru Daisato. How can you not be moved by this inspired one man effort when it is executed with the professionalism of a major film?
Our hero is portrayed as something of a freak, an outsider, an outcast in his own Japan, who works from his small home-like quarters dubbed the Department of Monster Prevention or Ministry of Monster Prevention, a sub-unit of Japan's defense ministry to protect the nation from kaiju (giant monsters). He's paid a meager $2,000 a month. Though government is far too excessive, expansive and invasive today, government work is clearly overrated at least in Japan for this little Big Man Japan. The approach to the film is movingly filmed in a documentary/ mockumentary style following this humble hero called Daisato from the very opening frames.
Daisato is by all accounts a normal citizen and a normal fellow who likens himself to a folding umbrella or expanding dehydrated seaweed, all of which he understandably likes along with an enjoyment of Super Noodles. These things reflect his own special attributes. He has inherited the ability to grow 30 meters with the proper application of electricity (or baking as he refers to it) like his father (The Fifth) and grandfather (The Fourth) before him and thus has accepted the responsibility or burden of protecting his homeland of Japan. To witness Daisato's transformation within a massive pair of purple underwear is something akin to The Hulk and his purple pants on Toho-sized steroids. I mean, we never fully understood how David Banner managed his clothes so easily in the 1970s TV series. The government is indeed supplying Daisato with his kaiju-sized undergarments.
Though clearly a mockumentary, Daisato has such heart, I found the film less funny and more moving than probably intended. It is only the citizens who mock his accomplishments despite his sizable contributions to protecting the nation. He deserves better. He's incredibly sympathetic as the documentarian allows us into his life to learn more about this unlikely, quirky hero including his unfortunate estrangement from his wife and now eight year old daughter. Taking the film more as an outrageous character study seemed to work in my favor.
Citizens scornfully cast stones upon Daisato's residence and ironically and, in truth, sadly he is anything but a big man in Japan. Signs and graffiti ruthlessly greet him at with messages adorning his home and at the power plants where he transforms. How could someone be so despised? How can people be so unkind? Yet, we see angry mobs form in our culture with hatred toward others. It touches a particular emotional nerve and a certain cultural truth regarding human nature. One such message: "Enemy Of Everyman -- Big Sato," despite being a very ordinary, kindly type every man. There is a great deal of outrageous and wacky humor invested in Big Man Japan's monster sequences but there is also a strong, deeply sad, even tragic, emotional current about a man without acceptance but burdened with destiny. These non-kaiju sequences worked best for me.
But, there are indeed monsters of the creepiest variety. The monsters were dubbed as "whacked out... goofy creatures" that are "hilarious" by Paper Magazine. I never found the film hilarious but the monsters were surely originally and weird in the most bizarre way. My son, the Boy Wonder, was clearly concerned and called the film "terrible." He demanded I not write anything "good" about this film. But he judges harshly and without genre context or the weight of the many historically-relevant kaiju pictures that we grew up enjoying. Pacific Rim he can enjoy. This kind of thing is entirely lost on him and that's rally too bad. But as a teenager it's also a little too trippy for his current tastes.
The monsters are terrifically realized creatures and all the more creepy as they appear to be reflections of ourselves taken to extremes. There is indeed a satirical edge to much of the creations as much as the film itself.
The Strangling Monster looks like an old Japanese man with a bad comb over fused with aspects of the Michelin man thing complete with a gruesome tail spike that oozes slime and egg sacs. Downright wacky stuff. Everything is truly unexpected. Each creature is unusual and frigthening in the unexpected manner The Angels were so unnerving and unconventional in Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996).
The Leaping Monster is known for its powerful and sharp leaping leg along with the head of a middle-aged man running around and yelling the word Sei. Could Big Man Japan be carrying on the social commentary once auteured by Ishiro Honda himself following World War II? Indictments of genetic mutation resulting from radiation and/or environmental pollution are often part of the message and Big Man Japan has much to say.
The Evil Stare Monster uses its sole watchful eye as its only weapon and is prone to falling asleep with the loss of daylight as it runs around with the body of a hairless chicken.
The Stink Monster. Nuff said. It has a predisposition for farting and being generally annoying with a bit of a mouth. It's odor is the equivalent of 10,000 human feces. Now that's nasty. It also appears to draw other monsters to it for mating with all that it has to offer. This creature begs the question of internal emigration within Japan as a country that is indeed homogenous and generally xenophobic with its immigration policy. The island nation of Japan keeps things relatively tight and insular. Big Man Japan certainly shines a light on cultural sensitivities. But if you thought Megalon, Guiron or King Ghidorah had some weapons you ain't seen nothing yet.
The Child Monster is strangely poignant in the final analysis. There is something terribly moving about this particularly od scene until Big Man's tit is bitten. You really need to see it for yourself. Daisato is also incredibly paternal toward the creature. But like many things in Daisato's life it doesn't end well.
And when the creatures are killed by Big Man Japan a ray of light is cast down upon them and they are lifted back to the heavens in a nod reminiscent, but different, of the Angels in Neon Genesis Evangelion. The latter creatures would often explode and then be represented by light that would generate the image of a cross. That effect is rendered here with a return to the heavens via tractor beam of light.
Big Man Japan or Daisato must face his inner demons. Attack by a Hellboy-like kaiju proves Daisato is running from himself and his own fears. Though frightened and proned to running from the creature, it is the much heralded and adored The Fourth, Big Man's grandfather who comes to save him. The image and the visual suggestion that today's generations are in need of wisdom and guidance through the wisdom and traditions of a much disrespected cultural heritage and the traditions of their forefathers. The elderly are to be respected and listened to. Whether through death or life, Big Man is saved by his elder against this particularly vicious kaiju thing. Additionally, Big Man Japan asks us whether or not we are caring for our elders and are we meeting our responsibilities in looking over them as they age?
Along with the infusion of a symbolic representation of Japan, there is also an observance of cultural change and a definitive commentary that there has been a strict adherence to traditional ways which have been denigrated with a change in the times and a generational apathy.
The final moments head into complete weirdo territory with satire or parody within a parody including an homage to popular Ultraman. His hallucinations and a kind of self-imposed, Evangelion-like psychological trauma is realized and secured within a long sequence that seems to poke fun at the excesses of the genre through a group called Super Justice. Big Man Japan is no longer a fantastical computer creation to portray this grand finale. He is now stripped down as a man in an old, rubber suit. The Hellboy-like creature is also minimized into a cartoonish thing. The final minutes are strange in Evangelion style as far as allowing viewers to handle the deciphering and interpretation. I'm not sure if the film's denouement is positive or if it's pure apotheosis, but it's different to be sure.
Most critics enjoyed Big Man Japan but not all. The late great Roger Ebert was rather insightful calling the film "funny in an insidious way." The film is indeed subtle and gradual and does deliver a cumulative effect to the viewer that seems to resonate. The NY Press dubbed it "one of the most thoughtful and funny superhero films for adults." Tom Long suspected a "stranger film" exists somewhere, "but would be hard to find." One critic called its "tragic flaw" the fact that "it isn't funny." As I noted, I'll be the first to admit, it's really not all that funny. It's weird stuff and puts a smile-like smirk on your face for the audacity of being so otherworldly within an already fantastic genre. So, no, this isn't a laugh out loud funny film, and the script could have absolutely been even smarter and funnier, but it's still a pleasure to watch.
That is just how not right this film is.
Amy Nicholson offered a properly insightful critique. "Deflation--not delight--is the rule, and the key to enjoying the B movie fights is to accept that even when Masaru wins, we're not meant to feel triumph." Precisely. There is a great deal of empathy for this man who performs out of a sense of responsibility, duty and the burden of this gift. He battles creatures that act as representations of the very people that attempt to knock him down as a citizen of the country he protects. And all the while he never loses his love for Japan while doing it and being so defamed and defiled. All in all, Big Man Japan is sufficiently bizarre with a 78% rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
In fact, there is something tragic about the hero in this picture. There is a sense of suffering in this man. Here is another potential scenario in viewing Big Man Japan. By the end, Daisato is no longer a creation of CGI, he becomes the man in the rubber suit. Was there more here than meets the eye? As interpretation became something to the eye of the beholder, I wondered if this man wasn't disturbed. Was he troubled? Was this a man struggling to fit into society and find his self-worth and significance? Was it all just a dream for a man attempting to have an impact? In the final minutes when he assists Super Justice and removes his hand from the rainbow weapon he sadly dismisses his importance to the world. "I make no difference" he says out loud. Daisato is clearly a man attempting to have an impact in his universe. Like all of us, we yearn to be of importance and to be valued. This was indeed Daisato's journey too. Big Man Japan felt like a fantasy about a man trying to make sense of his world and make a difference. There are even inconsistencies in his story along the way that suggest and lend credence to this belief as one potential theme.
Ultimately, Big Man Japan is a mockumentary in the sense that it does for kaiju eiga what This Is Spinal Tap (1984) did for rock music or what Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan (2006) did for the foreign traveler or what Comic Book: The Movie (2004) did for comic book geeks or the short R2-D2: Beneath The Dome (2001) for Star Wars (1977) fans. Television delivered the goods with the brilliant Arrested Development (2005) and, of course, the sensational US and UK editions of The Office (2001-2013). Singular episodes of Babylon 5 (Season Two, Episode 15, And Now For A Word), Farscape (Season Four, Episode 17, A Constellation Of Doubt) and The X-Files (Season Seven, Episode 12, X-Cops) have also dabbled in the realm with different degrees of success. But Big Man Japan squarely lands in this camp also with differing degrees of success. It does employ the mockumentary approach to good effect with zany monsters and a story more inclined to tug at the heart that make one laugh.
Big Man Japan is an enjoyable solid little picture offering the kaiju genre another twist through parody while also making subtle references to the changes in Japanese traditions.
When it comes to the monster battles, collateral damage is almost non-existent and there is a lack of smackdown bravado in favor of overdosing on general oddities and strange behavior. Big Man gets angry with one creature for poking windows and kicking a few cars. Physical altercations transpire between the kaiju but not to the degree of the Toho classics. It's a war of words with The Stink Monster. Kaiju with a wink and humor is certainly interesting but it will never replace or supplant the deadly serious approach of Toho's unforgettable offerings at their very best heights.
This is not essential viewing, but it's recommended for fans of the genre. And you could say the same thing about Rodan and many of the Godzilla pictures as non-essential, but we enjoy them and they are essential to kaiju fans. You know who you are. So if kaiju is your cup of tea give it up for the Big Man of Japan. This is strange stuff to be sure but at least its something original. I'm reminded of Jerry Seinfeld who once said something to the effect of "being normal is boring." Well, the large, peculiar Big Man Japan is anything but that and should be celebrated for it. And just as the title suggests, no one does big kaiju better and more consistently than Japan herself and here's another solid if different entry in the books. It's a big story with a simple message, mind trips aside, that maybe we do make a difference one way or another and accepting that responsibility is part of it.
Big Man Japan: B-. Writer: Hitoshi Matsumoto. Director: Hitoshi Matsumoto.